Jackson County Elections submits modernization 'wish list'

Mar. 24—From bulletproof glass to a new electronic signature scanner, the Jackson County Elections Office has submitted a six-figure request to the state for ways to make local elections more modern and more secure.

About half of a roughly $165,000 "wish list" that Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker emailed to the Oregon Secretary of State's office earlier this month is for ramping up physical security in the public-facing portion of the elections office in Medford.

Walker estimates that it would cost between $75,000 and $80,000 to install bullet-resistant glass, bullet-resistant interior sliding transaction windows in the front lobby, and bullet-resistant sheeting below the counters, according to a copy of the "Jackson County equipment needs 2022-23" email that Walker sent to the state March 1.

"Josephine County did it with some of their grant money last year," Walker said, adding that even though it's "not a huge capital project" the expense would be "above and beyond" a normal budget expenditure.

Funding for the request would come from roughly $2 million the Oregon Legislature allocated to the Secretary of State's office in 2021 to cover new election equipment, most of which went unspent.

The 2021 funds were intended to cover items such as postal barcode scanners, but Walker said they purchased two postmark scanners last year.

Starting this election, mailed ballots can now be accepted late provided there's proof that the post office received the ballot the day polls closed.

Elections officials will typically refer to the date on the postmark atop the ballot envelope, according to Walker. The scanners will only be used in the rare cases when officials need to verify the data in the orange barcode at the bottom of all pieces of processed mail.

"It's not an exact science, but the only time we'd use that is if we couldn't physically read a postmark," Walker said.

Despite the new leniency for ballots received in the mail after cutoff, Walker recommends that last-minute voters place their ballot in official ballot boxes. If a mailed ballot is left in a mailbox after the last USPS pickup of the day — primary ballots are due Tuesday, May 17 — it'll have the following day's postmark and therefore won't count.

"If you wait to the last day, I highly recommend you use the official ballot drop boxes," Walker said. "Especially because it's new."

Walker said the Jackson County Elections Office's tally equipment is "very new," and it undergoes perpetual upgrades to software and scanner systems through federally certified elections provider Clear Ballot.

Other requests to the Secretary of State's office includes roughly $15,000 for an automatic signature verification module, $50,000 for two new Fujitsu scanner bundles, and $5,000 for two laptops provided by Clear Ballot.

"With the way the county's growing, you always want redundancy," Walker said.

Walker said she's interested in the automatic signature verification system because elections officials currently have to individually inspect the signature on the ballot. The electronic system eliminates "the human element" from an important part of the election system.

More mundane items on Walker's request list include $2,000 for an envelope sealer to accommodate ballot envelopes filled out by voters at the elections office, $2,000 for a new voter notification card printer, and between $5,000 and $10,000 for shelving that would provide easier access to envelopes instead of keeping them in boxes stack on top of each other.

The request is in its earliest stages. Walker said she's not certain how much of the state funding will be allocated to Jackson County, but she knows the state funds won't be available until about July, when the county is in its next fiscal year.

"We do know they're committed," Walker said of the Secretary of State's office. "We're definitely going to take advantage of the funds that are available to us."

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.